Writing is hard. I know this is supposed to be a pep talk, and I’m promise we’ll get there, but let’s establish this truth first.
It’s a lonely job, where doubts and fears are your only water-cooler companions. It’s a daunting task, like trying to build a mansion from the ground up with nothing but a hammer, a box of nails, and your grit. I say all this mostly to let you know that the feeling is normal. Heck, it’s more than normal—that’s everyday life for a writer. Especially when you’re working on an early draft or revision.
But don’t despair. You can get through this, I promise. Here are some pointers to help you on your way.
- Focus on the trees instead of the forest. I know that sounds counterintuitive to the usual adage, but I mean it. Writing a book is like running a marathon. If you start out thinking about the entirely of that race—all 26.2 miles of it—you’re going to get intimidated or nervous or discouraged. So don’t. Don’t compare your small word count to what you anticipate it will be. Take things step by step. Focus on the ground before you and not the finish line. Now, I’m not saying don’t think about your story as a whole—you have to do that. You need and should be thinking about your ending and where the story is going. This is not encouragement to get lost. But don’t get hung up in thinking about the literal bigness of all your words. Make sense? When you’re running a long distance race, it’s better to focus on getting through one mile at a time. Each mile marker is a victory and makes the whole thing easier to swallow.
- Set reasonable goals. I know this is a no-brainer, but it’s still solid. Nothing will kill your forward momentum quicker than a constant sense of failure. When you’re done writing for the day you should be able to celebrate what you’ve accomplished that day, not despair over all you didn’t get done. But the only way to do that is to set a word count goal that’s reachable for you. It shouldn’t be too reachable—you do have to make forward progress—but it’s better to go a little easy than too hard. Trust me. Your emotional well-being will thank you for each small victory.
- Story progress must be greater than the sum of your daily words. What do I mean by that? It’s simple—don’t pad your story just to meet an arbitrary word count. This is sooooo easy to do. It’s the Pandora’s box of first-drafting. Don’t do it. Ever. Padding your word count is simply adding fat to your story—you’re going to have to cut it out later. Instead make sure your word contains the muscle, heart, and bone of your story. If you’re adding needless description or pointless dialogue to a scene just so you can give yourself a smiley sticker at the end of the day, stop it right now. It is better to fail to meet your word count then to fill your story with fluff. Repeat: it is better to fail to meet your word count than to fill your story with fluff.
- When in doubt, ask for directions. When you’re stuck, when you’re unsure of what happens next, ask your characters for directions. They will give it to you, I promise. (If they don’t then you have a character problem, but that’s a post for another day). So many plot issues or “blocks” can be solved simply be examining the motivation of your characters at any given time during your story. Particularly the villain. As the writer you need to understand why your characters are behaving the way they are. Their motivations hold all the answers.
- Change it up. Just like in diet and exercising, it’s easy to plateau in writing. If your approach isn’t working—if you’re struggling to meet word count goals, if you’re procrastinating all the time, if you’re padding—then try a new approach. It could be as simple as writing at a different time in the day. Or disconnecting your Internet access. Or it could be a stylistic change. Maybe you’re spending too much time revising. Maybe you’re not spending enough time revising. Remember that revising what you wrote the day before works best a warm-up for getting the words down today. If you’re spending all your time in the warm-up, you have a problem.
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Mindee Arnett is the author of two young adult series: The Arkwell Academy Series, a contemporary fantasy from Tor Teen (Macmillan), and Avalon, a sci-fi thriller from Balzer+Bray (HarperCollins). She has a Master of Arts in English literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She lives on a horse farm in Ohio with her husband, two kids, a couple of dogs, and an inappropriate number of cats. She’s addicted to jumping horses and telling tales of magic, the macabre, and outer space. Find her online at www.mindeearrnet.com.